Celtic v Rangers
Rodgers fearful of Gerrard’s growing threat
Brendan Rodgers is unbeaten in 11 games against Rangers since taking charge at Celtic (pic: SNS Group)
It has been some time since the outcome of an Old Firm derby has been so difficult to call.
Such has been the dominance of Celtic in recent years, there has been a certain inevitability about the result when the two Glasgow giants met.
Although Celtic are once again favourites going into the first meeting between the pair this season, things have changed.
While the gap between the two remains significant, there is no doubt it has closed. Just how much will be revealed at Parkhead.
A combination of factors has brought this about, not least the arrival of Steven Gerrard as Rangers boss.
The former Liverpool captain accepted the Ibrox post as his first foray into management and he has made remarkable progress.
Rangers are unbeaten since he took charge, in the process defying the odds to win through to the group stages of the Europa League. A quite superb achievement considering where the club was when he walked up the marble staircase at Ibrox for the first time.
Backed by substantial funds, he has overseen a complete rebuild of the first-team squad with no fewer than 14 arrivals.
He has brought in quality in the shape of a number of internationalists from around Europe, has restored the squad’s confidence and has instilled a determination that has been lacking for so long.
The Light Blues are a much more serious threat these days and their hosts will be acutely aware of the change in narrative.
Celtic go into the match looking a pale shadow of the team which has won back-to-back trebles under Brendan Rodgers.
They have already lost in the league this season – to Hearts at Tynecastle – been knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers by AEK Athens and have had a transfer window to forget.
John McGinn slipped through their fingers en route to Aston Villa, while Moussa Dembele was sold so late to Lyon, albeit for a club record fee of £19.7 million, that Rodgers had no time to bring in a replacement.
Unlike their rivals, the Celtic squad is clearly weaker than it was when the window opened.
Throw into the mix under-par performances this season and rumours of a cooling of the relationship between Rodgers and his board, and you have a scenario going into the big match which is quite different to any other in recent seasons.
There is also the added interest surrounding the Rodgers-Gerrard situation, the pair having worked so closely together as captain and manager at Liverpool. Speculation continues as to just how their working relationship at Anfield came to a conclusion.
With such intrigue surrounding the match, it is the most eagerly-anticipated Old Firm derbies in recent memory.
‘It would be very naive of us to underestimate the challenge and the personnel they’ve got, said Gerrard.
“They’ve got good players in all different kinds of positions. It’s a huge game for them, just as it is for us, so we don’t expect a weak Celtic team or a Celtic team that’s going to lie down.
‘I think it’s a chance (for Rangers) to put a marker down. Having said that, if we go and win the game, I won’t be sitting here getting carried away thinking we’re the next champions.
“At the same time, if it doesn’t go well, I won’t think the world’s going to end.”
He added: “Celtic are the double Treble champions, we respect that because we know how difficult that is to do.
“They have a good manager and good players. So the challenge is there, it’s big.
“But every challenge we have faced so far, we have done ourselves proud. I expect the players to go and do it again.”
Rodgers has not lost in 11 games against Rangers since arriving at Celtic and said: “There is no doubt that looking at them and analysing them, that Steven has done a very good job.
“He has pulled together a lot of players and they are clear in how they work.
“What is key is that they have brought in some good players. Players at a higher level which has allowed them to work in a better way.”
Celtic v Rangers (Sunday, kick-off: noon)